College Will Require All Fall Courses to Guarantee Students Two to Four Hours of Live Interaction


Though all courses will be virtual this fall, Harvard College expects professors to guarantee every student — regardless of time zone — between two and four hours of live interaction with course staff or peers each week, according to official College guidelines.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences announced Monday that all College courses would be taught virtually for students both on and off campus for the 2020-21 academic year. While most faculty also learned of the decision that day, many started to plan months ago for the possibility that the remote teaching format begun in March would extend into the fall.

Though the pandemic necessitated a hasty transition online last spring, FAS administrators have vowed to use the summer months to develop a more polished, professional virtual learning experience.

Some faculty members suggested that certain aspects of teaching may be more effective in an online format than an in-person format during a Thursday panel hosted by Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh.


History of Science professor Anne Harrington ’82 said that although students are divided into particular sections they must attend every week in a traditional course, in an online format, she can imagine dividing sections by topic and allowing students to choose which section they attend on a week-by-week basis.

Claybaugh said that while moving between modes of communication necessarily creates a transitional period, she believes people will learn to take advantage of the opportunities the new mode provides.

“As a scholar of literature, I’m interested in what happens when people move from one mode to another — so when you go from theater to film, for instance,” Claybaugh said. “For a while, what happens at these transition moments is film just sort of acts like it’s a theater. Then, at a certain point, the filmmakers realize, ‘no, actually we can do different things.’"

Still, faculty who have started to plan their fall courses must comply with several guidelines developed by the College, according to an FAS website dedicated to helping faculty prepare to teach remotely.

The requirement of providing students two to four hours of live interaction with faculty, teaching fellows, or their peers does not include watching recorded lectures, the guidelines make clear. This distinguishes College courses from online courses offered by the Harvard Extension School, for example.

In total, each student should have eight to 12 hours of engagement with each course every week under the guidelines.

For some departments, this means rethinking their usual course offerings, especially for large lecture courses.

Harrington said during Thursday’s panel discussion that she is canceling her general education survey course on the history of psychiatry in favor of a smaller course on mental health. She also said she is considering holding multiple sessions of the same class to accommodate students around the world.

In a Government Department town hall Wednesday, department administrators said they are taking a two-pronged approach. First, they plan to expand the offering of seminars, including transitioning certain lecture courses into seminars. Second, for large core courses such as Government 20: “Foundations of Comparative Politics,” they may look to create professional pre-recorded lectures similar to those on Harvard’s online education platform, HarvardX.

Claybaugh said in the panel discussion that faculty will likely be able to lecture from their campus offices rather than from home, which could address the technical issues that plagued some courses in the spring. Instructors will be able to access live tech support in the fall, she added.

Claybaugh said her “greatest worry” in extending the virtual education format was how to handle practice-based courses, such as science labs and art studio courses. Those faculty have been “unbelievably creative” in designing their courses, she said, whether by designing activities students can do at home, shipping select supplies to students, or using simulations based on data gathered by graduate students.

Physics preceptor David E. Abrams said he will likely be working “flat out” until the beginning of fall term as his department works to plan curriculums, record lectures and demonstrations, and send out materials.

Abrams said his biggest concern with the virtual format is helping students when they run into difficulties in hands-on projects.

“I teach a course where we build electronics,” he said. “The kind of mistakes that students make are not too hard to find if you can look over their shoulder, but they’re really not very easy to see through a notebook computer’s webcam.”

Some courses, however, proved too difficult to transition into a virtual format.

For example, the Physics Department will not offer Physics 191: “Advanced Laboratory,” a course normally required of Physics honors concentrators, during the 2020-21 academic year, Physics professor Howard M. Georgi announced in an email to concentrators. As a result, seniors graduating in 2020-21 will not be required to take the course for honors.

Juniors concentrating in Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering can normally choose to take Engineering Sciences 96: “Engineering Problem Solving and Design Project” in fall or spring semester, but it will only be offered in the spring this year, per an email to concentrators.

History professor Maya Jasanoff — who led the FAS working group examining the long-term horizon leading up to the decision on fall format — said any changes pioneered at Harvard to respond to the pandemic are likely to have “cascading effects on higher education.”

Harvard has a history of innovation during crisis, such as developing a General Education program following World War II that many other colleges later adopted, Jasanoff said.

One point she said her working group made sure to emphasize in its recommendations, however, was that digital solutions should never fully replace Harvard’s in-person teaching and residential model.

“While the pandemic showed us where remote learning makes sense to extend, it also showed us about what’s important about in-person learning,” Jasanoff said.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.